The Coen brothers’ latest offering follows a heavily fictionalized recreation of the New York folk scene of the 1960s, shortly before the great folk revival. Effortlessly hilarious without sacrificing poignancy, Inside Llewyn Davis explores life in a pre-gentrified Greenwich Village through the eyes of a failing folk singer in crisis.
The career of Oscar Isaac’s Davis is loosely modeled on the influential but commercially unsuccessful singer-songwriter Dave Van Ronk, who influenced and performed with widely celebrated musicians including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen without ever penetrating popular culture. Prodigiously talented but unable to connect with his audience or industry, Llewyn wanders the streets of New York, sleeping on the sofas of whoever will take him in whilst waiting for a call for his increasingly inept agent.
The film follows Llewyn through a poverty-stricken and frustrated existence as he avoids the series of crises enveloping his life – the suicide of his former partner, the stasis of his career as his lesser-talented friends begin to show signs of success, his absolute failure to supervise anyone or anything in his care and his increasing self-imposed alienation from his social circle. Llewyn’s failure to address any of these issues in turn threatens to throw his life out of control, whilst the lines of cause and effect blur to the point where the audience is unsure whether to dislike him for his apathy, or to empathise with his helplessness. This is in part testament to Isaac’s assured performance, which must transverse from petulant tantrums at friend’s houses to atmospheric performances in intimate bars.
The otherwise melancholy tone of the film is effortlessly and gratefully lifted through interventions from a number of supporting cast members. Adam Driver (Girls) excels as the baritone contributor to God-awful space-race themed anthem Please Mr. Kennedy, whilst Stark Sands is excellent as Troy, a painfully socially awkward but likeable soldier and part-time performer. Carey Mulligan (Shame, The Great Gatsby) turns out a staggeringly funny performance as embittered and impregnated Jean, poetically berating Llewyn with an odd but effective mix of disgust, nausea and sympathy. Joining the cast are Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund and Coen’s stalwart John Goodman, each of whom play both friend and foe to Llewyn whilst providing occasional comic relief.
The film intentionally avoids any major plot revelations or jaw-dropping moments, opting instead for subtlety and gradual character development as it explores the space and time it seeks to portray. Standing next to Scorcese’s three hour feast of debauchery The Wolf of Wall Street and McQueen’s epic tale of human suffering Twelve Years A Slave, this film is in danger of unjustifiably slipping under the radar. While the film never really gathers a great deal of momentum or thrills, this is more than compensated for by its aesthetic slickness, excellent soundtrack and frequent laugh out loud moments, making Inside Llewyn Davis one of the better – and more underappreciated – films of this year’s award season.
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